Three Brief Notes on the Climate Change Debate


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People’s Policy Project has published the outline of a plan to nationalize the oil companies and then use public ownership over them to meet decarbonization targets. We have also published a detailed carbon dividend proposal that would use a tax of $230 per ton of CO2 to fund a dividend of $2,237 per person. We plan to produce more climate change policy in the future, but right now I just want to make three brief notes about the debate.

1. Tenuous Connection to Capitalism

Sometimes people will say that climate change is because of capitalism, but the connection seems quite tenuous to me.

Most of the carbon emissions have happened under capitalism, but there is little reason to believe the emissions would not have also occurred under socialist governance. The case of the USSR is instructive because the USSR economy grew rapidly during the middle of the 20th century and also produced a lot of carbon-based energy. Indeed, fossil fuel energy was the USSR’s primary export product, just like Venezuela and Norway.

The arguments about capitalism seem to gloss over the fact that producing and consuming a lot of energy is key to increasing output and therefore key to improving people’s material conditions. Capitalists burned a lot of fossil fuel because more output meant more room to profit and socialists (would have) burned a lot of fossil fuel because they generally favor higher standards of living for the working class.

The real conflict at the heart of climate change is between generations. Getting current generations to sacrifice some of their standard of living in order to help future generations out is a tough political problem, but not one exclusive to a particular economic system.

2. Geoengineering Is the Future

Geoengineering, meaning humans actively engineering the climate, is something we are unavoidably committed to from now on. The current narrative is that, if we can stop carbon emissions quickly, then we can avoid the geoengineering solution to climate change. The problem with this narrative is not only that it seems clear that we will not stop carbon emissions quickly, but also that it misses the big lesson of the climate change issue.

The big lesson of the climate change issue is that the only way to avoid massive human catastrophe going forward is to ensure that the globe’s current climate remains basically unchanged for the rest of time. Just as we cannot tolerate it getting much warmer, we also cannot tolerate it getting much colder, or much different in some other way. Yet we know that the earth’s climate has changed back and forth a lot over the years, giving us some really hot periods and many ice ages. So if the earth’s climate is inherently dynamic, and human beings need a static climate to avoid huge transitional catastrophes, then the only way forward is for human beings to geoengineer the climate to end the dynamism.

The upshot of this for current debates is that people need to be more open to geoengineering research and trials, both because it seems increasingly clear that it will be necessary to resolve the immediate problem of global warming and because we will almost surely need it to stop even “natural” climatic swings in the future.

3. Smoke and Mirrors about Markets

Within the socialist community, there is a lot of posturing about what climate policy is the real socialist climate policy. This posturing ends up creating a lot of overheated rhetoric and confusion.

One recent example of how weird this posturing can get was Scott Edwards’s piece at Jacobin Magazine. Edwards declares that a carbon tax is not socialist (whoever said it was?) and says instead that this other bill he likes is the true socialist bill:

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel or implement convoluted, industry-friendly approaches that leave us only hoping for a favorable outcome. Dozens of members of Congress already support the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, which would mandate a full transition to clean energy by 2035 without relying on the marketplace.

The main content of the bill in question is just this sentence: “The minimum annual percentage of the quantity of electricity sold by a retail electric supplier that must be generated from clean energy resources shall be (1) in 2027, 80 percent; and (2) in 2035, and every year following, 100 percent.” This is followed by similar mandates for car companies and train operators.

Let’s think for a second about how this would work. In the ideal scenario envisioned by the bill, what happens is retail electricity companies react to the mandate by dramatically increasing their demand for non-carbon energy supplies. This would then create a massively larger market for electricity delivered by wind farms, solar farms, hydro dams, and so on. Private capitalists would then dump huge sums of money into building out these kinds of operations so that they can profit off of all the new revenue being pumped into the clean energy market as a result of the mandate.

In simple terms, this is the Obamacare approach to climate change: mandate the purchase of clean energy from private energy providers and hope that those providers rise to meet the new market demand. Or, if you are feeling really feisty, it’s the socialist solution to fix climate change “without relying on the marketplace.”

The posturing gets even funnier when you think about what enforcing these mandates would actually look like. As it stands, the bill has no enforcement mechanism in it. So it’s hard to understand what it plans to do if an electricity company fails to satisfy the mandate. Presumably the government is not going to force such companies to do rolling blackouts across major metro areas if they don’t hit the targets, but will instead fine them for non-compliance. But wait a minute: fining a retail electricity company for using carbon-based energy in order to incentivize them to switch to non-carbon sources is … a carbon tax!